Gay Teens Online: A Safe Place
April 26, 2000
I am a gay teen and I haven't told anybody yet because I am afraid of what they might think. Could somebody please give me some advice? -- message posted by Rusty, a fourteen-year- old from Alabama, on the "Teens Who Need Support" board on America Online's Gay and Lesbian Community ForumWhen he posted that message last fall, Rusty, who lives in a smallish town "about half the size of Birmingham," had never told anyone that he is gay. He knew no other gay people except one very distant, very closeted cousin.Six months later Rusty is no longer alone. "I go online to meet friends and talk to people I have things in common with," he says happily. "Oftentimes I get help from my online friends with advice -- especially if it pertains to my being gay."Rusty's situation is far from unusual. Gays and lesbians, after all, are the only minority group that grows up behind enemy lines: A young African-American or Latino can turn to his family when faced with bigotry; gay youths often find their family is the source of the worst prejudice they face.Rusty -- a bright kid with a sardonic sense of humor who loves to write and who played Romeo in a recent school production of Romeo and Juliet -- makes no bones about what a lifeline cyberspace has been. "If my account were taken away, I don't know what I would do," he says. "I depend on it so much to help me get support with being a gay kid in Alabama, and life in general."But it's not just youths in rural states who feel that sense of isolation. Brad, a Redondo Beach fourteen-year-old, feels much the same as Rusty. His sexual orientation is "almost totally secret," he explains, and being able to communicate with other kids going through the same sorts of feelings has "definitely helped. Now I don't feel as alone in the world."The online world these young people describe is a far cry from the one the mass media have often portrayed: A seamy underworld filled with hardcore porn and dirty old men looking to seduce the innocent. That distorted picture reached its height last year in the hysterical coverage of Daniel Montgomery, a Washington fifteen-year-old who left home with a bus ticket sent by a friend he'd met online. Media outlets around the country blared overwrought -- and, it turned out, entirely bogus -- stories of the youth being "seduced in cyberspace" by an older "sexual predator."Certainly, some people do go online looking for sex, but mostly what gay, lesbian, and bisexual teenagers seek is far more basic: a place where they can be themselves and not have to hide their true feelings, where they can know they aren't alone, and where they can get the sort of advice and information that isn't available from family or friends.One place online where gay youths can find the help is an Internet news group called soc.support.youth.gay-lesbian-bi, which is overseen by a group of moderators who screen out hostile or harassing posts. Moderator Mary Gray says the group receives between ten and twenty messages per day -- mostly from first-year college students, but also from a growing number from high school-age kids.Most of them, she says, are in the process of grappling with their gay identity and trying to decide if it's safe to "come out" to family and friends. "I'm really getting the sense that this is the new location of coming out," she explains, "the place for coming to grips with one's identity in a fairly safe space."Though s.s.y.g-l-b doesn't carry graphic sexual material, Gray is troubled by attempts to censor the Internet. "I think it's really crucial that this remain an open forum, a safe space," she says. "This is the kind of medium that lets people get their legs under them, so to speak, to make their next steps -- not as blindly as most of us had to do."Of course, not all gay youths are in that frightened, just-coming-out phase. Some, like nineteen-year-old Mary Toth of Santa Rosa, go online in search of political activism, setting up electronic networks to generate letters opposing antigay bills in the state legislature. And others, like Chad, a La Puente sixteen- year-old, log on in hopes of meeting potential boyfriends or girlfriends.Chad, who says he's been comfortable with his gayness since age twelve, has discovered that the dating scene online can be just as shallow and frustrating as it is anywhere else. "I would like to meet guys who aren't superficial, who only want hunks or sex," he complains. Lately, he's been doing most of his boyfriend-hunting elsewhere.For some, however, it isn't that easy. John, a disabled eighteen-year-old who lives in a small town in Michigan, posted this message on one of America Online's gay teen boards in February: "I feel so alone and scared, I have no one to talk to who understands what I am going through. I NEED to talk to someone but I don't know where to go. People think that just because someone is gay, all they want is sex, from any man they come across. I would never hit on a straight person. I want a loving relationship like anyone else. There are so many homophobic people at my school that it makes me very scared and feel that I have to be careful about anything I say and do. SOMEONE HELP ME."Several people answered, and John's life was changed. "They have all been incredibly nice and concerned people who really helped me," he says. "It just goes to show that there are still people out there who are willing to give a helping hand to someone in need."Except for Mary Toth, the names and certain other identifying details about the young people in this story have been changed. Bruce Mirken cheerfully accepts fan letters or harassment at BMirk@aol.comSIDEBARRESOURCES FOR GAY, LESBIAN, AND BISEXUAL YOUTH*soc.support.youth.gay-lesbian-bi. Internet Usenet news group.*http://www.youth.org: Youth Action Online web site.*America Online: Message and information boards for gay, lesbian, and bisexual youth are plentiful in AOL's Gay and Lesbian Community Forum. Go to keyword "GLCF" or "gay." From there, many sites of interest can be found under "message boards" or "organizations."